Thursday, September 3, 2015

Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure

I have a confession to make - I am probably a small town girl at heart.  Or possibly a medium city girl at the most.  This might surprise those of you who know that I lived in San Diego until I was 21.  Or those of you who know me from my time living in Phoenix - both big cities.  I do love the benefits of living in a big city - the shopping (an actual mall!), the arts (very few bands make Helena a tour stop!)!  But I also really appreciate many of the things this small town showcases.  And I'm comfortable here.  When I was in college, I took a train from Virginia to Massachusetts.  I had to switch trains in New York City.  Granted, I never left the actual station, but even that experience intimidated me.  I've never wanted to go back.  So I feel a lot of admiration for books with characters who treat New York City so casually - who have, indeed, conquered it.  It's one of the things I mentioned in my review of Starry Night.  And that confident independence (something I could never imitate) is what strikes me about Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure.


It begins like any other school day for these tweens.  They emerge from the subway, thinking about the field trip that day.  And then there is Pablo, whose parents are hovering over him, worrying because it is his first day at this school.  He tugs away from them to enter school on his own, saying "Please just go away!"  But in true mom fashion, his mother gets in the last word, announcing loudly and in public that she's packed Pablo's teddy bear into his backpack in case he gets lonely.  I can feel Pablo's cringing embarrassment from all these thousands of miles away.

Pablo is part of the class going on the field trip, and Alicia volunteers to be his partner for the trip.  It starts off poorly, with the other kids teasing them.  Then  the teacher engages the class in a discussion of their favorite subway trains, since they will be traveling on one to the Empire State Building.  When all the other students rattle off their preferred subway lines, Pablo takes a calculated risk and volunteers the X train.  That starts the rest of the class off into giggles again, since everyone else knows there is no X train.  Pablo has attracted the wrong sort of attention.

But their teacher smoothly moves on from Pablo's mistake, giving lots of facts about both the construction of the subway system and the Empire State Building.  As the class makes their way down to the subway platform, Alicia asks Pablo where he's from.  Pablo replies "Nowhere.  My dad has to move a lot for his job."  Alicia asks Pablo "But where is HOME for you?"  He replies angrily "NOWHERE!", and Alicia states the obvious "Then I guess New York is your home now!"  Pablo huffs "Whatever."  You can already see their emotions about the day in this exchange - Pablo is overwhelmed and negative; Alicia upbeat and positive.

As they enter the platform, the teacher is explaining the difference between express and local trains.  The platform fills with commuters - talking, walking, checking their phones.  Alicia takes the opportunity to show Pablo a map, so he can familiarize himself with the subway system.  Just as she drags him over, though, the rest of the class boards a local train (which makes additional stops).  In a moment of panic, Pablo grabs Alicia to rush her to the train.  But they have rushed onto the wrong train.  The teacher gestures wildly at them, hoping that they will get off at the next stop the two trains share.  In the meantime, Pablo and Alicia argue over whose decision got them separated from the rest of the class.

The panicked decision-making from Pablo and Alicia only continues throughout their travels.  They are impulsive and worried, jumping from train to train.  At this point in the story, this mother was worrying about their safety.  But at least Alicia is a city kid, comfortable with the maze of subways.  Pablo has the sheer determination to conquer the new school and the subway.  The thing they need to succeed in reuniting with their class: each other.  Can they work together and maybe even become friends?

As much of the story fascinates me, being as far from my children's life experiences as can be, what amazes me about Lost in NYC are the layered, thoughtful illustrations.  The series that TOON Books began publishing last fall is called TOON Graphics for Visual Readers, and I think Lost in NYC is one of the best examples of this series.  Let's start with the endpapers.

The front set of endpapers shows a cropped section of the NYC Subway map, including parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.  It has the stops marked in bold black font and the trains in different colors.  The subway lines interweave on the map, showing how commuters get where they need to go.  It's a traditional subway map - one that is most likely available at any stop to stash in your pocket.  It is the same map posted on the wall in the subway station where the class loses Alicia and Pablo.  On the back endpapers, the students' trip is shown.  The scale is off - the children are as big as buildings - but this is purposeful.  You can spot Alicia, Pablo, and their class throughout this map as they travel.  It's whimsical and suits the story perfectly.  Pablo, for instance, enters a subway car at one height, then in the next car, he fills the car completely, looking a little scared and out of his depth.  It also shows Alicia, the class and Pablo all converging on the Empire State Building.  I like this slightly different perspective on the map of their journey - it feels a little more emotional.  It gives readers a unique view of how they all got to their destination.

As we all know, there are millions of people in New York City, Sanchez has the challenge of drawing the crowd of people surrounding Pablo and Alicia throughout the book, but to also keep the readers' attention.  Many people are dressed in muted colors, so that Alicia (dressed in pink and green) and Pablo (in blues) stand out.  But the commuters also have lots of individual details that draw the eye - absorbed in their phones as they wait, shuffling along in single-file lines, listening to headphones, reading - there are lots of terrific details when the reader pores over the illustrations.

One of the other very cool things about this book is the way it incorporates photographs and New York City history into the graphic novel format.  When the teacher begins to give information to the class in preparation for their trip, the class is shown on a map of the subways (again, much like the one in the front of the book).  The teacher explains how the subways were constructed at the turn of the century, which included digging trenches for the trains.  As he describes the construction process, the students perch on the edges of newly dug trenches.  This double-paged spread is also filled with historic photographs of the subways being built - another way for students to visualize what happened then.

Finally, this book does not disappoint in back matter either.  TOON always has great information in its back matter, and Lost in NYC is perfect.  There is a fascinating behind-the-scenes section about Sanchez's trip to New York City and how he found all the details included in the book.  There are also pages on the subway system's history and the subway system today.  Finally, there is a brief history of the Empire State Building and of course, a bibliography. It is especially helpful that the books in the bibliography are provided with age ranges to help guide readers.

As always, these books are quality products, elegantly designed, but with an appeal to children.  Even here in our little town of Helena, Frances and Gloria have read and re-read Lost in NYC.  I hope you will too!

Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure.  Nadja Spiegelman and Sergio Garcia Sanchez.  TOON Graphics, 2015.

sent by the publisher for review

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher

I love a good family story.  And by good, I don't mean that everything has to be perfect, or end happily, although that's nice when it happens.  I mean the type of family story that feels real, honest and satisfying.  In the last few years, I've come to realize that although families may be shaped differently, there is a love there that should be celebrated.  Families are magic when they work, and I love watching those moments unfold, whether in real life or on paper.

When I checked out The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, I was just expecting it to be a fun read.  But I ended up loving it so much that I've read it twice this spring, and have kept it out from the library way too long.  I am so happy to be able to share it with you!

There are four boys in the Fletcher family - Sam, the oldest, is starting sixth grade; Jax and Eli are both in fourth grade (but at different schools), and Frog (whose real name is Jeremiah) is just beginning Kindergarten.  When the book begins, it is the first day of school..  The first day of school is filled with Fletcher family traditions, including a picture on the front steps before school starts, and a celebratory dinner when they all get home.  I love celebrating the little moments, and this first day of school dinner (there is a last day of school dinner too) is a special ritual I'll be stealing.  Each child gets served all their favorite foods at the first/last day of school dinner.  Eli always chooses Chinese dumplings and spareribs.  Sam wants spaghetti and meatballs (with homemade sauce).  Frog asks for macaroni and cheese from "'the purple box, not the blue box...That blue box is disgusting!'" (p. 22).  The boys' dad is a teacher, so he gets to have a special meal too: rare grilled steak with mushrooms and peppers.  And finally, "Papa had a small portion of everyone's meal, making, he said, a most fascinating study in how something can be less than the sum of its parts." (p. 22).  Whew - that is a lot of cooking - and eating!

Yes, there is a Papa and a Dad in this story and the matter of fact way this is treated by Levy gives me hope for more books where the emphasis is on the family structure, not who is within it.  While the Fletchers are all used to their family and how it operates, though, that isn't true of all of their community.  In the novel, Eli starts at a new school (more on that later), and as they arrive at a open house, Eli realizes that his family is a little overwhelming.  "Eli had been so worried about what his family would think of his school that he hadn't really though about how the school would react to his family. But as they trooped in, Eli couldn't help seeing them through new eyes... 'These are my dads' - he gestured behind him - 'and my brothers.'  Hoping desperately that was enough of an introduction, Eli swooped into his seat." (p.30-31).  Of course, people have questions, but the Fletchers mostly seem to attract attention because they are loud, rowdy boys, not so much because they have two dads. All four boys are adopted and are a mix of races, which can lead to more enquiries.  Eli thinks "He wasn't embarrassed about his family - it wasn't that.  It was just...there were so many of them.  And so many boys.  He knew the questions were coming." (p. 32)  The boys answer questions from Eli's new classmates as a family, united and secure in their story, although slightly defensive when kids get a bit too nosy.

But this novel is about the family at this time, not really how they became a family.  Each boy has their own story during the book as they navigate the school year.  We'll start with the youngest, Frog.  Frog is just beginning Kindergarten, and at dinner on the first day of school, Frog announces that he's met a new friend.  Her name is Ladybug Li, and she has three sisters and two moms.  This is all too much of a coincidence for anyone to believe.  They are already primed to be suspicious of Frog's information.  "Frog had what his preschool teacher had called an engaging and encompassing imaginary world, which Sam figured pretty much meant he was nuts.  Papa and Dad, of course, thought an imaginary cheetah under the bed was perfectly normal. " (p. 23)  Frog continues to insist throughout the year that Ladybug Li is real, but no one believes him.  And she is never at the birthday parties Frog attends, and she isn't in the phone directory...you can understand why everyone questions Frog's integrity.

Sam, who is entering sixth grade, has a great group of friends and plays soccer competitively.  Jax describes his brother this way: "Sam was royalty, kind of like a carnivore with a bunch of gazelles and zebras and wildebeests around him." (p. 7)  Sam's plan for the year involves preparing for the Elite team tryouts in the spring.  Getting on that team really requires plenty of practices, workouts, and an incredible amount of focus and determination.  But then Sam tells stories at the Fletcher Halloween party, and then kids ask him to tell stories during lunch period.  This leads to the director of the school play asking Sam to audition.  "She must have been joking - he'd never acted in his life.  Not that there was anything wrong with it, but he wasn't the type of kid.  He was the play-sports-every-recess type, the make-the-A-team-in-soccer type, the can't-wait-for-the-high-school-ski-team type.  Not the sing-and-dance-onstage type.  Obviously." (p. 93)  And suddenly Sam finds himself taking a risk, trying something unexpected, and possibly putting his soccer dreams on hold.

Then there is Eli.  At the start of the year, Eli is thrilled to be starting at a different school than his brothers.  He's been accepted at the Pinnacle School.  "A school where everyone was the smart kid sounded awesome.  A school where he didn't get 'rewarded' for already knowing the work by being allowed to sit and read quietly in the corner." (p. 15)  The school is expensive, and a huge shift for Eli.  "His parents hadn't been sure it was the right choice, but he knew it was." (p. 16)  This school has a lot of rigor, and doesn't believe in distractions like recess.  As the year continues on, Eli wonders if this is really the place for him.  This is the first big decision he's made for himself.  What if this was the wrong choice? 

Finally, Jax's story involves the whole family.  On the very first day of school, his fourth grade teacher announces a year-long Veteran's Project.  The students find a veteran and interview them about their experiences.  They will also research the war that veteran fought in.  The family realizes that their new next door neighbor, Mr. Nelson, is a Vietnam veteran.  The problem is that Mr. Nelson doesn't seem to like the Fletchers very much.  The boys always seem to be doing something wrong in Mr. Nelson's eyes.  After a contest to see who can hit the car horn harder gets the horn stuck, "Mr. Nelson had roared, threatening to call the police.  Eli had thought it was ridiculous.  It wasn't like they'd enjoyed the forty-five minutes it had taken to find the right fuse to turn the thing off any more than he had." (p. 14)  Diplomacy with Mr. Nelson will require effort from each of the Fletchers in order to get Jax's project completed.

There is so much life going on in this book.  Like any family, they have their ups and downs, but they work through things together.  The characters are dynamic and human.  Papa's sister, Lucy, lives in New York City and is a famous baker.  Frog loves to visit her because "best of all, when they were with her, she told them that, unless it endangered their health or well-being, the answer to any question would be yes." (p. 97)  Best aunt ever!  Every person in the book is full of personality and humor, even the cranky Mr. Nelson.  It keeps the book lively and chaotic, just like family life.

And that is what I love most about The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher.  It is full of family life.  Levy includes the snapshots of everyday rituals as well as the traditions that matter to this family.  In the nine months that elapse during this novel, there are bound to be some of both.  But there is also the family magic - the support, love, listening and guidance that make a family work successfully.  At the beginning of the book, Papa says that the meal he ate is less than the sum of its parts.  Once you've met the family Fletcher, you realize that their strength is the sum of all of themI'd like to read another book about the Fletcher family - they've won my heart.

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher.  Dana Alison Levy.  Delacorte Press, 2014.

borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Mighty Dads

In the past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about dads.  It's only natural at this time of year, after all, since Father's Day was just a few weeks ago.  But I'm also getting ready to blog about The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher later this week, and that's a really great book about dads.  I've known that I wanted to blog about this picture book, Mighty Dads, for awhile, and I was lucky enough that Scholastic was willing to give me a copy to review.

Mighty Dads is illustrated by James Dean, of Pete the Cat fame, which made this book a favorite with Frances and Gloria.  But I knew that this book would be a perfect match for a father/son pair who are very dear to me.  Since the son is making his blog debut here, he'll need an alias, just like the girls have.  The post where I talk about why I chose their aliases is here, and many of the reasons I chose those names are  still true today, more than three years later.  And if you know Russell Hoban' books, you will know that Frances has a best friend named Albert.  Perfect for our young friend, who I will now refer to as Albert.  My Albert turns four in two weeks.  He is full of imagination and chatter, and is blessedly flexible about playing with any and all of the girls' toys.  He is also a big library fan, and whenever we go, Albert requests books about diggers, cranes, dump trucks, and construction sites.  Albert is sweet, loving, funny and all boy in his fascination with construction equipment.  Frances and Gloria never cared very much about those sorts of vehicles, so it's fun to learn new facts about them as Albert does.




Each construction vehicle father in this story takes their child to work with them.  On each two page spread, the father teaches the child how to do the job they'll share.  "Bulldozer Strong shows Dozy right from wrong.  They go roar, roar, roar!"  The simple text (just two sentences per spread) is rhythmic and easy to predict.  Listeners will enjoy chiming in with the sound that vehicle makes.  I can imagine a storytime getting progressively louder with each repetition.  It might also be fun to make the story more physical, acting out the various jobs.  The cranes reach, the cement mixer and his child go spin, spin, pour.  There are all sorts of applications for this story.

Another thing I love about this book is the way the fathers engage with the younger vehicles.  They are guiding their children through the routines of their everyday jobs, but they also are there to protect and support their children.  The text in the beginning of the book states that Mighty Dads "keep them safe and bolted tight and show them how to build things right."  That emphasis on doing their job correctly is referred to throughout the book.  These dads take pride in what they do for a job, in doing it well, and teaching their children to do the job successfully also.  And they don't neglect the fun, either.  "Dump Truck Sturdy teaches Dumpy to get dirty."  Isn't that the best part of a construction zone?  There are so many opportunities to do a dirty day's work.

While the fathers exhibit patience, strength and pride, the young vehicles show their energy and enthusiasm.  They want to be 'just like Dad'.  Each of the little vehicles looks just like a mini version of their father.  While they are trying to do their father's work, the younger versions always produce just a little less than their dads.  Junior Crane has to work on hauling girders on the shorter side of the building; his dad, Crane Long Arm, is delivering beam on the taller side.  Same with the dump trucks - Dumpy's pile of dirt is dwarfed by what his father has delivered. But the child's contribution is just as worthy.  I love the nicknames Holub has created for the equipment too - there's Boom Truck Tall and Boomer, Excavator Big and Vator (I sort of wish this father/child pair were dressed all in black to give off the Darth Vader vibe).  The nicknames keep each family related, but also keeps the personalities distinct.

Dean's illustrations are a perfect match for this story.  The backgrounds are simple and bright, keeping the focus on the equipment and their actions.  On the excavator page, there is a huge swath of blue sky framing the bright orange excavators.  The excavator pair balances on the brown dirt, their scoops digging out the earth below.  It helps create a sense of perspective for the reader, too.  Excavator Big fills most of one side of the spread, while little Vator is even smaller than the adjoining text.

The most winning part of the illustrations are Dean's trademark faces incorporated into the vehicle windows.  There is so much personality embued just by the slant of a large eye.  The crane's long arm resembles a pointy nose because of the eye placement.  Looking at the father-child pairs is so much fun.  The solid primary colors from the backgrounds continue on to the vehicles themselves.  It gives a sense of play to the construction work.  They are bright, attractive, yet simply drawn - the way construction equipment should be.  Each father is plain and hard-working, and proud of it.

And those hard-working fathers are proud of their children too.  When the day of work is done, they celebrate their children's achievements: "When their rumble day is through - Mighty Dads say 'I'm proud of you! Tomorrow let's build something new!'"  I love that the fathers end the day looking forward to spending the next with their children!  And everyone is fast asleep as the book ends.

This book is going to be well-loved by Albert and his dad, and I can't wait to share it with them.  Here's to a fun day spent together!

Mighty Dads. By Joan Holub; pictures by James Dean.  Scholastic Press, 2014.

sent by the publisher on request.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Final Summary - 48 Hour Book Challenge

So I am finished with the 48 Hour Book Challenge, and am a little bit sad about it.  I got a LOT read, don't get me wrong, but I just wish I had had more time.  Life got in the way each day, and I found myself doing other things instead of reading.  And it didn't help that I am still pretty tired from my sinus surgery in the middle of last week.  But with all those excuses, I still read 12.5 hours, and completed five books and one complete blog post (I did write review posts for all of the books I read, but those were short).  It was a fun weekend, and I will for sure participate again!!! 
Here are the titles of the books I finished -
The Butterfly's Daughter - Mary Alice Monroe
Girl Genius, Book One: Agatha Heterodyne and the Beetleburg Clank - Phil & Kara Foglio
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher  - Dana Allison Levy
Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle
Outrageously Alice  - Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

and I read about half of Just Listen by Sarah Dessen, which I'll more than likely finish tonight. 

Thanks to MotherReader for keeping this challenge alive!! 

Outrageously Alice - 48 Hour Book Challenge

So, if you've read my blog for long, you'll know that I am a big fan of the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  It had taken me a long time to get to Outrageously Alice and I had been looking forward to reading it.  This is another book that I will blog about sooner or later, so I won't spend too much time talking about it now.
But here are the things that stood out for me in this reading.  Alice lives with her father and her older brother.  There is such a remarkable relationship between the three of them - one that is so rare and fun.  They are good to each other, and both her father and her brother have roles in raising Alice.  Alice is curious, and there are lots of questions that she asks each of them (or both of them together!).
Also, in this book in the series, Alice is struggling with who she will be, both now and as a grown-up.  She wants to be "not boring", which can sometimes cross the line into outrageous.  She's also learning how to interact with boys, which is interesting too.  As always with these books, there is lots to think and write about.  I am looking forward to writing about this one on the blog too!!

Current Reading Time: 10.5 hours reading + 1 hour blogging - 11.5 hours total!!
Books Finished: 5

Outrageously Alice.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Now off to keep reading and I have a blog post to write for today!

Wolf in White Van - 48 Hour Book Challenge

Well, after I finished The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, my girls came home from a long few days at their dad's house while I recovered from surgery.  It was a successful re-entry, but it required my attention, so I didn't get as much reading done last night as I hoped.  However, I did finish Wolf in White Van last night around 10 pm, which was a victory.  I've read far more than I actually thought I would in this readathon, and I am loving it!  But on to Wolf in White Van.

I read it because it was on the Alex Awards list for this year.  Or at least, that was what caused me to put it on hold.  In the meantime, I had just  read Ready Player One and loved it, and I thought this would be another book about role-playing games that I would like.  But... I didn't get it.  There weren't enough of the things that I was interested in, and I felt like I just didn't get it.  Maybe if I was reading it more slowly, or not trying to read it while the girls watched The Goonies and I kept my eye out for scary scenes, or ... maybe it just wasn't my kind of book. All that to be said - I kept reading to finish it because I wanted to know more about Sean, and what had happened to Lance and Carrie.  I just wasn't satisfied with what there was.

Current Reading Time: 9 hours reading + 1 hour blogging = 10 hours total!
Books Finished: 4

Wolf in White Van.  John Darnielle.  Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.  2014.

borrowed from Lewis and Clark Library

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher - 48 Hour Book Challenge

I just finished another book - yay!  I'm feeling pretty accomplished today.  I just finished The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, and I am actually not going to say too much about it, because this was a re-read before writing a blog post.  I have two books that I'd like to post about in the next few days around Father's Day, and this is one of them.  So I'll keep my thoughts to myself for now. 

With chapter books, I tend to read them twice, at least, before I blog about them - the first time I might just be identifying that this a book I'd like to write about, so the second time I re-read looking for themes or quotes I'd like to write about.  Sometimes this second read takes longer, because I am making connections.  Sometimes it takes longer because while I have a feeling about the book, I can't exactly figure out what I'd like to say.  Sometimes it takes longer because I just don't have the time to sit down and work it all out.  I'm happy that I had had some time to think about the themes I wanted to use already, and that I had the time to re-read all at once.  Now on to writing about it...actually, I think I'll keep reading first!

Current Reading Time: 6 hours reading + 1 hour blogging = 7 hours total so far
Books Finished: 3


The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher.  Dana Allison Levy.  Delacorte, 2014.

borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library